Tuesday, June 30, 2009

And this was Alice Wilson's second wooing - more comedy from Elizabeth Gaskell

"'Well, Mrs Frank,' he said, 'what answer? Don't make it too long; for I have lots of office work to get through tonight.'

'I hardly know what you meant, sir,' said truthful Alice."

Mr. Openshaw, a "capital accountant," a man of habit, had, earlier in the day, proposed to his landlady. This is all in Elizabeth Gaskell's short story The Manchester Marriage (1858).

"'Well! I should have thought you might have guessed. You're not new at this sort of work, and I am. However, I'll make it plain this time. Will you have me to be thy wedded husband, and serve me, and love me, and honour me, and all that sort of thing? Because, if you will, I will do as much by you, and be a father to your child--and that's more than is put in the prayer-book. Now, I'm a man of my word; and what I say, I feel; and what I promise, I'll do. Now, for your answer!'

Alice was silent. He began to make the tea, as if her reply was a matter of perfect indifference to him; but, as soon as that was done, he became impatient."

Alice has been married before, to a sailor who disappeared at sea, and has a child he never met. That's how she's "not new at this sort of work." Now, I don't think it is absolutely necessary, when including a shipwrecked sailor in your story, for that sailor to return after many years. But I'd read three other Gaskell stories before I read this one that were not - how to say it - afraid of melodrama. So I knew we'd see that sailor again. I've wandered away from the proposal scene.

''Well?' said he.

'How long, sir, may I have to think over it?'

'Three minutes!' (looking at his watch). 'You've had two already--that makes five. Be a sensible woman, say Yes, and sit down to tea with me, and we'll talk it over together; for, after tea, I shall be busy; say No' (he hesitated a moment to try and keep his voice in the same tone), 'and I shan't say another word about it, but pay up a year's rent for my rooms tomorrow, and be off. Time's up! Yes or no?'"

It's like The Producers. Mr. Openshaw is a wonderful character - narrow, rule-bound, weird. Not successful in spite of his weirdness, but because of it. I work with people like him. In her other stories, Lizzie Leigh, for example, Gaskell's women don't have to work too hard to be kind. Their kindness seems to be innate, or previously inculcated, at least. Odd Mr. Openshaw has to learn to open his heart. His ludicrous proposal is just a first step.

"'If you please, sir--you have been so good to little Ailsie--'

'There, sit down comfortably by me on the sofa, and let's have our tea together. I am glad to find you are as good and sensible as I took you for.'

And this was Alice Wilson's second wooing."

There are a lot of nice touches in this scene, perhaps best read without my interruptions, I suppose. Of course the male reader, four feminist stories behind him, would put most of his attention on the best male character, wouldn't he? But Gaskell allows herself to make him funny and foolish, which, with her women, she does not.

Not in these stories, I mean. Why haven't I read Cranford yet? The butter, the butter.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Do you ever read the moral concluding sentence of a story? I never do - some moralistic stories by Elizabeth Gaskell

It's not quite true that I'd never read Elizabeth Gaskell before reading Four Short Stories, Pandora Press, 1983. Pretty close, though. I assume that any of Gaskell's six novels are more typical starting places. In December, during the discussion of The Chimes, someone mentioned that if you wanted a better "fallen woman" story (a subplot of The Chimes), you should try Gaskell's Lizzie Leigh (1850). I didn't think I did want such a thing, yet here I am.

This collection is well chosen. The stories are of a piece. I assume that Pandora Press was a feminist publisher, because the stories all feature feminist themes and poor, kind heroines and sickly children. Three of the four - The Manchester Marriage (1858) is a little different.

All four are centrally about acts of kindness, though. In The Three Eras of Libbie Marsh (1847), a Manchester seamstress comes to care for the crippled child of an unfriendly neighbor. The mother of the prostitute Lizzie Leigh searches Manchester for her daughter, and finds her due to her own kindness, and that of a stranger. In The Well of Pen-Morfa (1850), a woman who has suffered various difficulties befriends a madwoman. The Manchester Marriage (1858)* is more about the consequences, tragic and otherwise, of a failure of kindness.

Humble women's fellow-feeling with other humble women and their children, that's much of what's here. These sorts of characters are not entirely absent from the fiction that precedes them, from Dickens or Balzac or Scott, say, but they are always minor characters, in the background, often little more than plot mechanisms. So Gaskell's focused attention was new to me, as was the Manchester setting (rural Wales in one case). Gaskell was expanding the reach of English fiction here.

The stories are moralistic, didactic, even, and explicitly Christian. The Three Eras of Libbie Marsh ends:

"Do you ever read the moral concluding sentence of a story? I never do; but I once (in the year 1811, I think) heard of a deaf old lady living by herself, who did; and as she may have left some descendants with the same amiable peculiarity, I will put in for their benefit what I believe to be the secret of Libbie's peace of mind, the real reason why she no longer feels oppressed at her own loneliness in the world.

She has a purpose in life, and that purpose is a holy one."

This is definitely to my tastes, but unfortunately it's the only evidence of a sense of humor in the story, or for that matter in Lizzie Leigh or The Well of Pen-Morfa, which are mostly subdued and solemn. More on that tomorrow, I think.

* The Manchester Marriage, published by Dickens in his Household Words magazine, was "written in Heidelberg in 1858 in order to finance a trip to Dresden" (Introduction, p. 7). Dresden is a marvellous place. This is perhaps the best reason to write a short story I've ever heard.

Friday, June 26, 2009

We get a deal o' useless things about us, only because we've got the money to spend.

A couple of great chapters of The Mill and the Floss spend their time rummaging around inside a linen closet. A big one - the china and silver are kept there as well. One of them (III.I.) is titled "Mrs Tulliver's Teraphim, or Household Gods." I asked ma femme what she thought a teraphim might be. "An angelic turtle," she said. I guess that's a mix of the novel's water and religion themes.

Where was I? Right, the Tullivers have to auction off everything they own. Her sisters will buy some of her linens and service, especially anything monogrammed, to keep them in the family. But Mrs. Tulliver knows they won't save her china, "for they all found fault with 'em when I bought 'em, 'cause o' the small gold sprig all over 'em, between the flowers."

In the next chapter, "The Family Council," the sisters have gathered: Mrs. Deane, the richest, too dignified to say much; Mrs. Pullet, whose great subjects are the illnesses and funerals of her acquaintances, always with the warning that she'll likely be next, but she never is, no, she never will be; and the acerbic Mrs. Glegg, who "had on her fuzziest front, and garments which appeared to have had a recent resurrection from rather a creasy form of burial; a costume selected with the high moral purpose of instilling perfect humility into Bessy and her children." (III.III.)

Let's just continue this a bit:

"'Mrs. G., won't you come nearer the fire?' said her husband, unwilling to take the more comfortable seat without offering it to her.

'You see I've seated myself here, Mr. Glegg," returned this superior woman; 'you can roast yourself, if you like.'"

I think I might have met Mrs. Glegg, the living reproach to the crimes, misjudgments, and foolishness of everyone else. Maybe more than once.

The china returns, and the silver teapot, which Mrs. Pullet might buy, except for its unfortunate straight spout.

Mrs. Glegg is a marvel, with good scenes throughout the book. But look at what Eliot does with the wealthy, distant, Mrs. Deane. She has only three lines in the chapter:

"O sister, what a world this is! what trouble, O dear!"

"Well, I've no objection to buy some of the best things. We can do with extra things in our house."

"Yes to be sure. I've been thinking so. How is it Mr and Mrs Moss aren't here to meet us? It is but right they should do their share."

What a pill. Negative, cheap, shallow, someone who thinks suffering should be shared. The Mosses are, of course, miserably poor. What else does Eliot need to tell us about Mrs. Deane?

Her declaration that we (not necessarily her sisters) can do with extra things tempted me for a title to the post, but I'll give that to poor roasted Mr. Glegg, a useless fool, but a kind one, possessed of glimmers of wisdom: "We get a deal o' useless things about us, only because we've got the money to spend." Although the useless things, the sunny trifles of The Mill on the Floss, are there for the taking.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

You could not live among such people - George Eliot runs circles around me

Adam Bede, the novel that precedes The Mill on the Floss, suffers from a strange apologetic interlude that almost derails the novel. Eliot feels, or pretends like she feels, that she has to justify the behavior of an Anglican minister who does not seem especially religious. Weirdly, that character then almost disappears from the book.

Did Eliot not have the novel planned out? Did she really worry about the disapproval of some theoretical group of readers? Did she lack confidence in her characters? The passage also includes some theorizing about realism and some curious hints about where the novel actually does go. I remember that in the discussion at The Valve last summer, no one was exactly happy with this chapter, although like me, most of the readers made their peace with it. First novel jitters, maybe.

But almost exactly halfway through The Mill and the Floss, Eliot does the same thing, or virtually so. The previous section concluded with a defeated Mr. Tulliver urging, convincing, his son to inscribe a curse on his enemies in the family Bible. Daughter Maggie instinctively recognized the act as sacrilege.

Maggie's moral sense is not sufficient, it seems. The next chapter is another apology for the sacrilegious behavior of Eliot's characters. That's just how these people are, she says. "Journeying down the Rhone on a summer's day" (why are we suddenly in France?), the narrator sees ruined villages, destroyed by a flood, that make her think "that human life - very much of it- is a narrow, ugly, grovelling existence, which even calamity does not elevate."

These sorts of people "will be swept into the same oblivion with the generations of ants and beavers." (IV. I.) "If... their Bibles opened more easily at some parts than others, it was because of dried tulip-petals, which had been distributed quite impartially." This is getting kind of mean. "[I]t was of equal necessity to have the proper pall-bearers and well-cured hams at one's funeral." Now wait, that just good hospitality. "You could not live among such people." What, me? Hey, who is this joke on, anyway?

This withering attack on received religion is in a chapter titled "A Variation of Protestantism Unknown to Bossuet," an intrusion even more perplexing than that of Sir Charles Grandison in a description of a print of a Bible story. I've read one work of the 17th century French bishop Bossuet, one of his Funeral Orations. Eliot has something else in mind - the Discourses on Universal History, maybe? He's not mentioned anywhere besides the chapter title.

I think he's one more link in the chain that leads us, two chapters later, to a variation of Protestantism that he might recognize. Teenage Maggie by chance acquires a copy of The Imitation of Christ (ca. 1418), the classic pre-Protestant devotional work. Hungry for books (she's lost her library, the poor thing!), she reads a bit and has a conversion experience, "as if she had been wakened in the night by a strain of solemn music." (IV.III.) Eliot actually includes over a page of Thomas à Kempis, perhaps to allow the reader to have a spiritual transformation along with Maggie. It doesn't quite last, by the way - boys, and the novels of Walter Scott, are sore temptations.

I don't want to make too much fun - this section is an insightful description of teenage religious enthusiasm and self-denial, and anything that Maggie does is, it turns out, quite interesting - but Eliot certainly took me by surprise. So now I wonder if this particular intrusion by the didactic Eliot, apologizing for her characters' religious views while simultaneously mocking them, while simultaneously mocking me, is part of a more complicated game. I'm not sure what it is. It does not feel like the work of a writer who lacks confidence.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

A pretty Scripture thing - let's stand on a chair and look at the prints in The Mill on the Floss

A week or two ago I borrowed an out of context line from The Mill on the Floss (1860) for my own malign purposes. Young Maggie Tulliver, a great reader, is trying to convince Luke the miller, her father's employee, of the value of books. She thinks he might enjoy the illustrated Pug's Tour of Europe:

"'There are the Dutchmen, very fat, and smoking, you know, and one sitting on a barrel.'

'Nay, Miss, I'n no opinion o' Dutchmen. There ben't much good i'knowin' about them.'

'But they're our fellow-creatures, Luke; we ought to know about our fellow-creatures.'

'Not much o' fellow-creaturs, I think, Miss; all I know--my old master, as war a knowin' man, used to say, says he, 'If e'er I sow my wheat wi'out brinin', I'm a Dutchman,' says he; an' that war as much as to say as a Dutchman war a fool, or next door. Nay, nay, I aren't goin' to bother mysen about Dutchmen. There's fools enoo, an' rogues enoo, wi'out lookin' i' books for 'em.'" (I.IV.)

Luke also rejects the "elephants and kangaroos, and the civet-cat, and the sunfish" found in Animated Nature. This is all good fun, a nice foil for the boundlessly curious and imaginative child Maggie.

Eliot extends the joke when Luke invites Maggie back to his house to visit his wife and eat bread and treacle. Maggie "stood on a chair to look at a remarkable series of pictures representing the Prodigal Son in the costume of Sir Charles Grandison, except that, as might have been expected from his defective moral character, he had not, like that accomplished hero, the taste and strength of mind to dispense with a wig."

I believe that the Prodigal Son is some combination of fool and rogue, and that his story is to be found in a book, so it turns out that Luke is not as free from the influence of books as he believes. Could the story actually be from The Gospel of Luke? Of course it is (15:11-32). Good one, George Eliot.

Next joke: over the course of the novel, Maggie is going to turn out to be a kind of Prodigal Daughter, so Eliot's setting up that theme here. But she's going to be an extraordinarily virtuous, unusually non-prodigious prodigal. That explains the otherwise bizarre insertion by the narrator of Sir Charles Grandison into the description, a character as far from the Prodigal Son as can be imagined.

Everyone's read Sir Charles Grandison, so I can just - what's that? No? Grandison is Samuel Richardson's Ideal Man, created as a penance for making Clarissa's diabolical Lovelace too interesting. There's a letter of Jane Austen's in which she also singles out the detail of the wig - Sir Charles, you see, wears his own long, flowing hair, a telling detail that shows his confidence, freedom from mindless convention, and possibly his freedom from venereal disease. Maggie's a lot closer to Richardson's hero than to the Prodigal, except she's not such a dull stick. I'm just saying, if Eliot just wanted to show that the Biblical characters in the pictures were wearing 18th century clothes, she could have used Tom Jones or Roderick Random, who were prodigal and then some.

A few chapters later, Maggie investigates another set of prints, at her Uncle Pullet's house. Maggie becomes "fascinated, as usual, by a print of Ulysses and Nausicaa, which uncle Pullet had bought as a 'pretty Scripture thing'" (I.IX.) Now that's just mean. Poor, dumb Uncle Pullet. Which Bible story do you think he thinks it is? Girl doing laundry meets naked man on beach - I have no idea.

I think I'll spend a couple more days rooting through The Mill on the Floss, looking at the pictures.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Villiers de l'Isle-Adam is French

Yesterday I called Villers de l'Isle-Adam the French Poe, and then overemphasized the Poe part. Today, I'll put too much weight on the French piece.

What do I mean by French? The title characters of "The Bienfilâtre Sisters," "belonged, as people say, to the class of girls who 'work as day-labourers at night'." They are women with a vocation, responsible, "sensible creatures" who "shut up shop on Sunday." "Their motto was 'Speed, Safety, Discretion'; and on their visiting-cards they added: 'Specialties'." (all of this from p. 4).

Then the younger sister yields to temptation, "her first lapse." She falls in love with a poor student. She gives up her career. Her family tries to bring her back, but there's no hope, it's l'amour fou.

That's what I mean by French. Cynical, perverse, slightly smutty (although "Specialties" is probably the dirtiest single word in Cruel Tales).

"Flowers of Darkness," barely over a page long, is merely an observation that the cute little flower-girls on the promenades are peddling cast-offs from funerals, so the women ("spectral creatures" under the gaslight) "thus adorned with the flowers of Death, wear, without knowing it, the emblem of the love which they give and that which they receive."

Executions, duels, morgues, all quite French, Death appearing everywhere Villiers looks, but not always entirely seriously. I should mention that few, perhaps none, of the Cruel Tales actually describe physical cruelty. This ain't the Marquis de Sade. The title is more, let's say, attitudinal.

Some of the stories have what amounts to punchlines. A chef gives "The Finest Dinner in the World." His rival says he can top it, and does, cynically. In "Sentimentality," a woman accuses her lover of lack of feeling, of stoniness, and breaks with him. He is perfectly calm, yet proves her wrong, sincerely.

The author of the defensive Oxford World's Classics introduction, realizing that he's having trouble making his case for Villiers, ends by arguing - asserting - that above all, Villiers has a unique voice. This is not quite true. He does not always rise above his influences, Poe and Baudelaire and Flaubert and Mérimée and probably many others I don't know. But he's still surprising, witty, creepy, elegant, weird, all in this one short book.

This concludes my excursion into Weird France, at least until I discover that I have something to write about all of this Charles Baudelaire I've been reading.

Monday, June 22, 2009

I've found the French Poe - the Cruel Tales of Villiers de l'Isle-Adam

And he's not Charles Baudelaire. He's Jean-Marie-Mathias-Philippe-Auguste, Count of Villiers de l'Isle-Adam, a genuine impoverished French nobleman turned Bohemian writer. I just finished reading his collection Cruel Tales (1883), which I enjoyed a lot, even though its contents might not be quite as good as its title.

I'm just beginning to understand the extent of Baudelaire's role in creating the French Poe - he translated Poe, yes, but also championed him, privately and publicly. Baudelaire, by the time he discovered Poe, was already a mature artist. "I've found an American author who has aroused in me a sense of immense sympathy," Baudelaire wrote to his mother (Mar. 27, 1852). But it's hard to say that Baudelaire was much influenced by Poe. It was too late for that.

Villiers de l'Isle-Adam is sixteen years younger, and would have read Baudelaire's Poe in his teens. The impact was obviously profound. "The Sign," for example, about a premonitory vision of death, includes specific references to "The Fall of the House of Usher" ("Was this really the house I had just seen? What antiquity was revealed to me now by the long cracks between the pale leaves?").

More curious, more surprising, are the signs of the influence of Comic Poe on Villiers, seen most strongly in his tales of new inventions: "The Apparatus for the Cehmical Analysis of the Last Breath," "The Glory Machine" (designed for the theater, it includes not just a clapping machine, but "other tubes, containing laughing-ga and tear-gas"), and the brilliant "Celestial Publicity," about the Lampascope, a device that projects advertising slogans ("Heavens, how delicious!," "Are corsets necessary?") onto the constellations, or the moon. The author predicts that candidates for office will be particularly interested: "One might even add that, without [this] discovery, universal suffrage is a mockery."

A year or two ago, I did not even know that Comic Poe existed. His influence on English-language writers seems non-existent. But here he is in Villiers, alongside ghost stories, paradoxes, and weirdnesses that contain their own flavors of Poe. Villiers does have a strain or two that is not indebted to Poe. I don't want to exaggerate any of this, but I'd never seen such a thing.

If the Cruel Tales are not quite entirely original, that does not bother me much; they were easily worth reading. I hope to read more Villiers, in fact. Certainly his novel Tomorrow's Eve (1886), which is a Pygmalion story starring Thomas Edison, not even forty at the time of the novel's publication. The robot woman speaks by means of the phonograph. Also, at some point I put 2 and 7 together and got 16, as happens in Weird France, and realized that Villiers's play Axël (1890?) supplied the title to Edmund Wilson's Axel's Castle, so now Axël's on my list.

More on Villiers tomorrow, more of his own strengths. Many thanks to commenter tcheni for recommending Villiers.

Quotations from the Oxford World's Classics edition (1985), translated by Robert Baldick.

Friday, June 19, 2009

where I saw something shaped like a llama - why read visionary writing?

"I descended a dark stairway and found myself in the streets. Posters were being put up, advertising the opening of a casino and describing in detail the prizes being offered. The printed framing of the posters consisted of garlands of flowers, so well-drawn and -colored that they looked real... I entered the workshop where I saw something shaped like a llama, but apparently to be equipped with large wings. This monster was somehow being injected with a jet of fire which was gradually bringing it to life, so that it writhed about, penetrated by hundreds of crimson networks to form arteries and veins fecundating, as it were, the inert matter; its exterior was being covered instantaneously by a full growth of fibrous appendages, pinions and tufts of wooly hair."

I hadn't really quoted from any of Gérard de Nerval's hallucinatory visions yesterday. This is from one of my favorites. It ends with Nerval feeling that he "was damned, perhaps, for having attempted, in violation of divine law, to probe into a forbidden mystery."

I'm a mild-mannered, common-sensical fellow. I read, mostly, mild-mannered, common-sensical books, written by authors imaginatively engaging with a world I recognize as my own.

I've read - not understood, not hardly, but read - all of William Blake and puzzled over the mysteries of The Four Zoas. I've read a fair amount of Friedrich Hölderlin, another poetic madman, an imaginative cousin of Nerval's. Who else? Novalis, I didn't understand Novalis at all. Thomas de Quincey, where at least the mechanism (opium) and the psychology are a little easier for me to grasp. Aurélia actually echoes The Confessions of an English Opium-Eater in places, one of the few works that I'm certain Nerval pilfered. Poor Jones Very, who thought he was Christ. Emily Brontë', on the more comprehensible end of the spectrum. The esoteric Golem novel of Gustav Meyrink is another example - tarot cards, Kabbalah, secret mysteries, all of that stuff.

The visionary writers present such a powerful challenge. They're endlessly interpretable, endlessly frustrating. Sometimes it seems that if I only decode one more reference, or fit in place one more image, then the whole thing will be clear, and I will share the wisdom the poet has gathered from the stars or the sea or the deepest abyss of his brain. I don't actually believe that; rather, I suspect that most of this work is poetically stimulating but rationally unapproachable, even incoherent, the meanings too private.

What I find valuable in Aurélia is that the narrator shares my reservations. He marvels at the symbolic wonders revealed to him, but can never quite turn it all into a single system. Hints of meaning are everywhere, but ultimate meaning escapes him. Nerval would love to clue me in, but he doesn't know how. It's poignant, actually.

But what great poem or fiction does not work this way, the author and reader both wrestling with meaning, neither quite capturing it all? Nerval merely lays bare some of the assumptions.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

No more death, no more sorrow, no more anxiety - the mad dreams of Aurélia

Aurélia (1855) is hard to describe. It is Gérard de Nerval's account of the effects of his mental illness, which was perhaps schizophrenia with manic episodes. Most of the short work (75 pages or so) consists of dreams, or visions, or hallucinations, and only a few passages describe the circumstances of Nerval's breakdowns, or the workings of mental hospitals, or his friends' attempts to help him.

I understand the book as an intermittently sane man's attempt to understand his insanity. This particular man is an artist, a poet, so his method is poetic. He wants to understand his illness artistically. To me, this is a challenging idea. I want Nerval to undergo a course of pharmaceuticals and psychotherapy, and am skeptical that any ideas of value can be found in schizophrenic dreams. But that's not this book.

Nerval is a skeptic himself, who wants to believe. He wants his suffering to be rewarded by insights, his breakdowns to have meaning. Perhaps he creates meaning through his poetry, through his writing. Aurélia is in two parts, the first more coherent, with long descriptions of dreams that suggest something, even when bizarre or violent: a new creation myth involving the Elohim, or a promise of an afterlife:

"No more death, no more sorrow, no more anxiety. The deceased relatives and friends I loved were giving me unmistakable signs of their eternal existence, and I was no longer separated from them except during the hours of daylight. I awaited those of night in a bittersweet melancholy."

Part II, though, becomes more disoriented, more dangerous. His manic episodes become more frequent. The prose is often reduced to fragments. Nerval becomes convinced that he possesses a messianic message, or alternately that God has abandoned him, or the universe. He considers suicide. In the mental hospital, he is, or thinks he is, surrounded by his books, "a bizarre accumulation of the learning and knowledge of all eras: history, travel, religions, cabala, astrology," and he writes:

"Let's read it all though once more . . . Many of the letters are missing, many others torn across or full of crossed-out passages; here is what I find:

....... ................................."

In the second part, especially, there is this continual swerving from transcendent meaning to complete emptiness. As Aurélia ends, Nerval claims to be "happy with the firm convictions I have acquired, and I compare this series of trials I have undergone to what used to be represented, for the ancients, by the idea of a descent into Hell." Even without taking these as Nerval's last words before his suicide, I find the conclusion chilling.

Have I given a sense of what this book is? I strongly doubt it. Tomorrow I'll try to suggest why a mild-mannered fellow like me reads such things.

Translation by Kendall Lappin.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

The bitter lemons printed with your teeth - another Chimera

Delphica

Do you recognize, DAPHNE, the old refrain,
At the sycamore's foot, by the white laurels, below
The olive, myrtle or the trembling willow,
The love-song . . . always starting up again!

Remember the TEMPLE, its endless colonnade,
The bitter lemons printed with your teeth?
And, fatal to rash visitors, the cave
Where sleeps the conquered dragon's ancient seed.

They will come back, those gods you always mourn!
Time will return the order of old days;
The land has shivered with prophetic breath . . .

Meanwhile the Sibyl with the latin face
Still sleeps beneath the arch of Constantine:
- And nothing has disturbed the austere porch.

The Chimeras consists of only twelve poems, all sonnets, just 168 lines. Five are a single sequence, "Christ on the Mount of Olives." Seven are like yesterday's "El Desdichado," or this one. These seven form a sequence, too, although if they tell a story, I missed it. Naples recurs, for example, and Virgil, and Pompeii - "suddenly ash blanketed the sky" ("Myrtho"). "Delphica"'s TEMPLE is apparently a Temple of Isis in Pompeii. That link is made clearer in "Horus," about dying gods, I think, in which Isis is a character. "Put out his squint eye, tie his twisted foot -\ He's king of winters, the volcanoes' god!" she says.

"Anteros" ends "I sow \ Again at her feet the teeth of the old dragon," a reference to the Cadmus myth. The next poem is the one I have here. The teeth and the dragon are separated by a line, but after the previous poem, the association is inescapable, although that would make the lemon-biting woman a dragon as well. The Cadmus myth (the dragon's teeth grow into warriors, who, after a battle with each other, help found a city) fits in with the poem's conception of the return of the old pre-Christian, pre-Constantine gods, the old oracles, "the order of old days."

Richard Holmes devotes an entire essay in the Peter Jay translation to that amazing line, "Et les citrons amers s'imprimaient tes dents?" It reminds me of Goethe's "Mignon" (1795), although I worry that I'm jumping to Goethe too much.

Or maybe not. I just looked up Christopher Middleton's version of "Mignon." It begins "Knowst thou the land of flowering lemon trees," in other words, Italy, as I know from the poem's context in Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship. That's what I was remembering. But then there's "Calm the myrtle, high the laurel grows \ Knowst thou it still?" and later "a cave, \ And in it dwells the ancient dragon brood." And then Middleton adds "This translation is dedicated to the memory of Gérard de Nerval."

I feel like I should start this post over. Seriously, that lemon line is fantastic. Discuss amongst yourselves.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

The sighs of the saint, and the fairy's screams - the obscure Chimeras of Gérard de Nerval

El Desdichado

I am the shadowed - the bereaved - the unconsoled,
The Aquitanian prince of the stricken tower:
My one star's dead, and my constellated lute
Bears the Black Sun of Melancholia.

You who consoled me, in the tombstone night,
Bring back my Posilipo, the Italian sea,
The flower that so pleased my wasted heart,
And the arbor where the vine and rose agree.

Am I Love or Apollo? . . . Lusignan or Biron?
My brow is red still from the kiss of the queen;
I've dreamed in the cavern where the siren swims . . .

And twice a conqueror have crossed Acheron:
Modulating on the Orphic lyre in turn
The sighs of the saint, and the fairy's screams.

If a person does not want to read this too closely, I can't say I blame him. It's arcane, from the title on, and doesn't make sense. Hard to focus on it. It is, in some ways, a really famous poem. Here's what I did.

The Spanish title is from, or at least in, Ivanhoe, of all things: "the device on his shield was a young oak-tree pulled up by the roots, with the Spanish word Desdichado, signifying Disinherited." (Ch. 8) The knight Ivanhoe adopts the word as his secret identity.

Now I have a clue to the second line. Maybe you didn't need it, but I did. The Aquitanian prince in the tower might be Richard the Lion-Hearted, imprisoned in Germany on his way home from the Crusades.


The Black Sun of Melancholy is a reference, at least, to Dürer's Melencolia I print (1514) - see the upper left corner. How can I tell that from the poem? I can't, but it comes up again in Nerval's Aurélia.

Posilipo is a seaside suburb of Naples that Nerval had visited. Goethe was there on February 27, 1787 (see The Italian Journey). He said it was very beautiful, which is not too enlightening. But Nerval made his first splash, at the age of twenty, with a translation of Faust, Pt. I, so, hmm.

Plus, the, or a, tomb of Virgil is in Posilipo. So that ties in to the crossing of the Acheron, into, and presumably back out of ("twice a conqueror"), Hell, both through The Aeneid and through Dante, and which seems to lead Nerval to the first poet and conqueror of Hell, Orpheus.

Have I accomplished anything yet? Maybe this is crazy; maybe it's how the poem was meant to be read. The second line, Le prince d'Aquitaine à la tour abolie, is also line 430 of The Waste Land (1922), one of the "fragments I have shored against my ruins," along with Dante and The Spanish Tragedy and "London Bridge is falling down," all ruins about ruins, fragments about fragments. Nerval called these poems The Chimeras, mythical monsters composed of the pieces of many beasts.

Translation by Peter Jay, The Chimeras, 1984.

Monday, June 15, 2009

A whole series of remembered impressions - Gérard de Nerval's lovely, accessible Sylvie

I'm planning to spend the week with Gérard de Nerval (left, a Nadar portrait), the writer best known either for his pre-Surrealist lobster walk, or for going insane and hanging himself. Poor Nerval. Turns out he also wrote some books. So forget that other stuff. Books.

Two short stories, Sylvie (1853) and Emilie (1854); a sequence of twelve sonnets, The Chimeras (1854); a not-sure-what describing his mental breakdowns, Aurélia (1855): those, plus some additional miscellaneous poems, are what I read. Oh, and a brilliant biographical sketch of Jacques Cazotte, victim of the Revolution and author of the sly and amusing The Devil in Love (1772). There also exists, in English, some travel writing and some additional stories, which I hope to read someday.

Sylvie is the piece I can recommend most easily, or most generally. It's a finely written story of love and memory. The narrator, who I'll call Gérard, is in love with an actress, who is out of his reach. Reading "at random" in the newspaper, he sees the announcement of a traditional festival in Valois, Gérard's home, that "triggered in my mind a whole series of remembered impressions." This may remind readers of Proust, a bit. Proust himself agreed, citing Sylvie as a key influence on his ideas, although I'm not sure any of this helps much with understanding Proust or Nerval.

In memory, at least, Gérard is in love with two other women as well, the blond, noble Adrienne, who becomes a nun, and the brunette peasant Sylvie. Only Sylvie is a character. Adrienne and the actress are idealized figures, one inaccessible because pure and perfect, the other because she is corrupted by money, by Paris. Gérard is perhaps also corrupted.

The story moves, sometimes obscurely, between Gérard's current return to Valois and his adolescent memories, often centered around festivals and dances. It's woven through with books, as well - I told you Gérard was corrupted - particularly Julie, ou la nouvelle Héloïse (1761). Some of the story in fact takes place in Ermenonville, one of Rousseau's haunts, literally so when he was buried on an island there. The story ends with an act of renunciation, a bit like Julie, but more like mature Goethe. Nerval was the most Germanic of French writers.

How about a bit of prose? There are so many nice passages:

"Sylvie, when she used to come to me to these places, lent them a special charm with her obvious delight, her mad dashing here and there, her shouts of joy. She was still a wild, barefoot child, her skin bronzed despite her straw hat with its wide ribbon flying helter-skelter amid her long black tresses. We would go to the Swiss farm to get a drink of milk, and people would say to me: 'How pretty she is, that sweetheart of yours, little Parisian!'

No country bumpkin could have danced with her then! She would dance only with me, once a year, at the fête of the bow."

And there's a lot better than that. I wanted a scrap of character description - the passages about parties, about trying on a wedding dress, about an antique clock, are as good, better. Who needs Flaubert? In the sweet, melancholy Sylvie, Nerval had mastered le mot juste three entire years before Madame Bovary.

All right, that's it for Gérard de Nerval that I understand. Actually, the Balzac-like Emilie, and the Cazotte essay, and many of the poems are perfectly comprehensible. But I don't want to write about them. The rest of the week, it's all tarot cards and T. S. Eliot and Isis and the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili. What can I be thinking?

Translations by Kendall Lappin, in the 1993 volume of Aurélia and Sylvie.

Friday, June 12, 2009

There's fools enoo, an' rogues enoo, wi'out lookin' i' books for 'em - also, why blog? - also, read Villette!

"Nay, nay, I aren't goin' to bother mysen about Dutchmen. There's fools enoo, an' rogues enoo, wi'out lookin' i' books for 'em." The Mill on the Floss, Ch I.4.

I actually prefer fools and rogues to be in books, rather than real life. Let's hold that thought.

A few months ago a new button showed up whenever I logged into Wuthering Expectations. The new one, perched beside "Edit" and "View" and "Settings," was "Monetize." I'm glad my host added that button, because it gave me a good laugh every day, for weeks. I think the effect has finally worn off. Monetize! Ha ha ha ha! No, it's still funny.

I've seen several good blog posts recently about The Point of It All, why all of these amateur and pro-am and pro blockheads* bother. Dorothy W. turned Montaigne's "On Practice" into an Apology for Blogging: "if I play the fool it is at my own expense and does no harm to anybody." Patrick Kurp has been reading selections from the notebooks of poet Donald Justice: a notebook is "for jotting down unfinished ideas" that "seldom go any further, perhaps for the best." Prof. Myers defends "writing done in a hurry," in the process saying nice things about me and revealing one of my open secrets, which is that each post I write is an experiment, a try, an essay. That each post is a failure is incidental. Let's see what this does, I think.

For me, the comments are the great improvement on a notebook. This notebook is out in public, where kind and knowledgeable strangers jot improvements in the margins. A commenter now has me puzzling over why I care so little about the idea of sympathetic characters. Maybe I should care more. The more I think about the issue, the less well I understand it.

I've turned to Wayne Booth's The Company We Keep: An Ethics of Fiction (1988) for help. It's a big book, accessible but far from easy. The book has some of my own ideas, so now I guess I have to read it. Before I knew what was in the book, if I copied Booth's ideas it would be inadvertent, and I would just be naïve. If I do it now, I'm a plagiarist. Books are corrupting. Stay away from books.

This project may be a bit too close to real work. Again, any assistance regarding sources is appreciated. Surely someone has put some argumentative weight behind the words of Luke the miller, up there at the top of the post. Why do I spend so much time with fictional fools and rogues, with imaginary people I don't like, or who, perhaps worse, I am tricked into liking?

On another note, Rohan Maitzen and The Valve will be hosting a Villette book club this summer. See the link for the schedule. I found previous runs at Adam Bede and The Chimes to be useful, and plan to read along this time, too. Ma femme has told me that this is her favorite C. Brontë novel, and that it features all sorts of thoroughly unlikable characters.

* Per Dr. Johnson: "No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money." No offense!

Thursday, June 11, 2009

One sat looking at his task in stony stupefaction and despair - Dombey and Son is a long book, but I'm in no hurry - plus a brilliant blog idea

Dombey and Son has been in my "Currently Reading" list for a couple of months, and it may be there for a couple more. I've been known to leave comments at other blogs, meant to be encouraging, when people express apprehension about long books, particularly those of Dickens, about the original leisurely serial publcation. The very first readers of Dombey and Son took eighteen months, plus a day, to read the whole thing. They read about fifty pages a month. So why fret if it takes six months. That's three times the original pace.

So I'm not all talk. I'm mostly talk, but not all talk. The Mill on the Floss is my current goin'-to-work book, and I'll probably just gnaw through it, like a rat, at a steady pace, 30 to 50 pages a day, until it's done. But Dombey and Son, I'm reading that one in the original spirit, sometimes a chapter at a sitting, sometimes a 40 or 50 page chunk, like one of the monthly serialized pieces, but with no regularity or schedule.

I've seen people worry that they will forget characters, or forget what happened. I do forget characters, and I do forget what happened, but then Dickens reminds me. He was writing for readers who hadn't read the story for a month. He builds some of that in.

Just as an example, I don't remember if the stony, stupefied fellow I put in the title is Tozer or Briggs. Let me look it up:

"Paul answered yes; and Tozer pointing out the stony pupil, said that was Briggs. Paul had already felt certain that it must be either Briggs or Tozer, though he didn't know why." (Ch. 12)

See, it's not just me. Even the characters in the book have trouble keeping the characters straight.

This all leads to me a brilliant litblog idea. Someone should read all of Dickens at once, in order, but at the pace of the original serialization. But all at once, see. On the first of the month, read the first Pickwick Papers serial. On the second, read the first slice of Oliver Twist. On the third, Nicholas Nickleby. So the commitment is only about 50 pages a day. A complication is that some of the novels were weekly serials, not monthly. So you'd have to adjust the schedule accordingly. But there are only(!) fifteen novels, so there's flexibility, and even room to read something besides Dickens.

Note that the reading load decreases over time. The unfinished Mystery of Edwin Drood will quickly drop out of the rotation. The weeklies will also wrap up before you know it, after six months or so. You'll have room to squeeze in the Christmas books. For the big monthlies, the last installment was a double, parts 19 and 20 under one cover, so there will be extra reading in the last month.

Did I say "brilliant"? I meant "idiotic" - but you'll have read every Dickens novel in 19 months, and I'm sure you'll have a book contract, which is the point of this sort of gimmick, right?

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

The up-to-date technogeek Nathaniel Hawthorne

I currently credit Nathaniel Hawthorne with two literary first uses. His 1843 sketch "The Old Apple-Dealer" is, to my knowledge, the first literary mention of the railroad, while the 1851 The House of the Seven Gables introduces photography to literature via a daguerreotypist.

Come to think of it, there's another - "The Old Apple-Dealer" is merely set in a railroad station. The first literary train ride is from just slightly later in 1843, in "The Celestial Railroad," Hawthorne's clever update of The Pilgrim's Progress. Turns out you can't just ride the train to Heaven.

Maybe I should mention that I don't actually quite exactly think these works are really the first mentions of these subjects in all of fiction, not to mention poetry, not to mention other belletristic essays and whatnot. The world, it is big. But if you know of an earlier candidate, please put it in the comments. If it's a daguerreotypist or other photographer, earlier or later, please add it to Terry Vertigo's bibliography of fictional photographers, as well. He's got a 100 year gap between Hawthorne and Anthony Powell that needs filling.

And I have a larger point, which is that I never think of Nathaniel Hawthorne as Mr. Up-to-the-minute, keen observer of what's new and now. Dickens and Balzac, for example, those are the eagle-eyed journalists of the big picture. But Dickens doesn't put a character on a train until Chapter 20 of Dombey and Son, published in 1846 or 1847, (oops, untrue - see correction below)* and his first mention of the subject is earlier in the same novel. Oddly, Dickens has to have someone build the railroad, in Chapter 6, before any of his characters can ride on it, an unusually literal way of constructing a fictional world. See nicole's post here for a really fine passage from that chapter.

I don't remember Balzac using the word "railroad" until Cousin Bette, 1846, and then it always has the word "bond" after it. The context is always investing. No one actually sets foot on a train. Maybe somewhere in the sixty plus installments of The Human Comedy I have not read there is a daguerreotypist or a train ride or two, maybe even one earlier than Hawthorne's. Although railroad construction started late in France for various reasons, not until 1842 on any significant scale, so Hawthorne probably trumps Balzac there.

The House of the Seven Gables actually devotes a paragraph to the issue of technological novelties. Clifford has been in prison for decades, so everything is new to him:

"As regarded novelties (among which cabs and omnibuses were to be reckoned), his mind appeared to have lost its proper gripe and retentiveness. Twice or thrice, for example, during the sunny hours of the day, a water-cart went along by the Pyncheon House, leaving a broad wake of moistened earth, instead of the white dust that had risen at a lady's lightest footfall; it was like a summer shower, which the city authorities had caught and tamed, and compelled it into the commonest routine of their convenience. With the water-cart Clifford could never grow familiar; it always affected him with just the same surprise as at first." (Ch. XI)

This is followed by a bit about, yes, railroads, "the obstreperous howl of the steam-devil." Much of Hawthorne's work, much of his imaginative life, takes place in the colonial history of New England. But there's this other side of Hawthorne that didn't fit my image of him.

* UPDATE: I forgot about the short American train ride in Martin Chuzzlewit, Chapter 21, another fine scene for the reader with a taste for Dickens' America fantasia. This chapter came out in serial form in September 1843, so it's quite close to Hawthorne. But "The Old Apple-Dealer" was published in January 1843, and "The Celestial Railroad" in May 1843. Check my work here. Thank goodness my error didn't spoil my Dombey and Son joke. The Americans can build their own railroads; Dickens has to build the English ones himself.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

A Longfellow jug and a Carlyle vase - literary bric-a-brac at the Peabody Essex Museum

I saw such odd things in the Decorative Arts section of the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem. Just below the Hawthorne portrait, and a bit to the right, are a couple of Wedgwood memorial pieces, a Thomas Carlyle vase from 1882 and a Henry Wadsworth Longfellow - what is it? a milk jug? - from 1883, both produced a year after the death of each author. * (See correction below)

The Longfellow whatsit is on the left. I can't find, and didn't take, a picture of the Carlyle vase. For some reason, the Longfellow souvenir does not seem nearly as ridiculous as the Carlyle knickknack, which featured the scowling author and a thistle motif, presumably because Carlyle was himself a sort of human thistle. I wish I had a picture of it.

The back of the Longfellow piece features a chunk of his long poem "Keramos" (1878):

Turn, turn, my wheel? Turn round and round
Without a pause, without a sound:
So spins the flying world away!
This clay, well mixed with marl and sand,
Follows the motion of my hand;
Far some must follow, and some command,
Though all are made of clay!

It's a poem about ceramics, printed on a piece of ceramics! How about that. And it's about death. Everything in one package. No idea why that question mark is there.

If the jug is not kitschy enough, take a look at this thing, "Why don't you speak for yourself, John," (1892) a plaster rendering of a scene from "The Courtship of Miles Standish." Big devil, maybe a foot high, more. I don't know what to make of these objects. They're a glimpse of a lost world, that's for certain. I do not regret that we no longer appreciate our authors in this manner.

The Peabody Essex Museum is not a conventional art museum. It is founded on the collections of early 19th century Salem merchants and ship captains, many of whom specialized in trade with China, Polynesia, and, eventually, Japan, and who did not necessarily have what would now be considered the best possible taste. Although many of the museum's pieces are of high aesthetic interest, many others are more like specimens. The museum does not attempt to hide this either. Their key collection is labeled "Asian Export Art."

And this is aside from objects like the first stuffed penguin ever exhibited in North America. Ratty thing. I'd love to spend more time in the museum, piecing together the story of who collected what and why.

* I misread the date somewhere. The Longfellow jug, as a friendly commenter points out, was produced in 1880, while Longfellow was alive. For more information, see Imagining Consumers: Design and Innovation from Wedgwood to Corning by Regina Lee Blaszczyk, 2002, John Hopkins University Press.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Back from Salem - now what?

I'm back from a short trip to Salem and Boston. Funny that zhiv was there a day or two ahead of me. Salem has two major Nathaniel Hawthorne landmarks, the Custom House, featured in the introduction to The Scarlet Letter, and an odd 17th century mansion the exterior of which Hawthorne borrowed for The House of the Seven Gables. Whoever owns the House of Seven Gables also owns Hawthorne's childhood home. Hawthorne's wife, Sophia Peabody, came from an important Salem family.


So I suppose I should have picked up a lot of important insights into Hawthorne's work. But I did not actually quite make it inside of any of those buildings. I walked by them. I saw the 1840 portrait of Hawthorne in the Peabody Essex Museum. The Salem Maritime National Historic Site, which owns the Custom House, was instructive. Salem was really very nice. Very pleasant. But ma femme et moi are not the most, let's say, aggressive tourists. We stroll, and sit in coffee shops, then see if there's time left for anything else before dinner.

I did learn a fair amount about The House of the Seven Gables through the method of reading it, although I don't have much to say about it here. It didn't seem to be quite the complete conception that I saw in The Scarlet Letter, although I'm reserving judgment on that. And it does have, among its many felicities, the unbelievable Chapter XVIII, "Governor Pyncheon," in which we and the narrator stand vigil beside a corpse for eighteen hours or so. It's a tour de force, even show-offy, a display of writerly facility that rivals anything in his earlier work. I kind of knew about the main set-pieces of The Scarlet Letter, but I had no idea "Governor Pyncheon" existed. What a treat.

I had planned to write about the mysterious Gérard de Nerval all this week, but I'm not sure I have the fortitude at the moment, between the draining travel, and that giant pile of steamed clams at The Barnacle in Marblehead, and the genuine Italian wedding that was the point of the whole trip. Nerval's work, some of it, is so difficult:

The Thirteenth comes back... is again the first,
And always the only one - or the only time:
Are you then queen, O you! the first or last?
You, the one or last lover, are you king?...

Yikes. That's the first stanza of the sonnet "Artemis," one of The Chimeras, as translated by Peter Jay. More of that next week, or never. The rest of this week: I have no idea.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

In Salem for a few days, plus a request regarding sympathetic characters

I'll be in Salem and other points near Boston for a few days. Perhaps I'll see the House of Seven Gables in the flesh. Or the wood, I guess. Anyway, no posting tomorrow.

A commenter inspired me to think a little more about the issue of sympathetic characters. Maybe I should actually say at some point why I don't have much use for them. So I'll think about that.

But what about the other side? Does anybody know of any full-throated defenses of sympathetic characters? Blog posts, articles, books, whatever? What I mean is, what is the aesthetic defense of the sympathetic character.

One useful approach is via the history of the novel, especially the rise of the sentimental novel, the discovery by writers of the use of the sympathetic character. There must also be ethical arguments. Would Wayne Booth be a useful place to look for this sort of thing?

Any assistance would be greatly appreciated. This is probably an overly ambitious project, but who knows.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

But here the tale has surely lapsed into the improbable - Hawthorne's audacity

In Chapter XII of The Scarlet Letter, "The Minister's Vigil," Rev. Dimmesdale is afflicted by Poe's Imp of the Perverse, and mounts the pillory in the town square in order to purge his sins. He's in public, but not really, since it's the middle of the night and no one can see him.

Hester Prynne and her elf-child Pearl somehow find there way onto the platform as well, where they hold hands in a circle. Just as Dimmesdale tells the elf that they cannot actually appear in public together, that "the daylight of this world shall not see our meeting," a meteor appears "with the distinctness of mid-day." Lesson: do not mess with the elf-child.

Ignoring the "Custom-House" introduction, the meteor appears in the exact center of the novel. In the Library of America edition, at least, on the exact pages at the center (250-1).* A page later, Hawthorne goes too far, as Dimmesdale sees the meteor as "an immense letter, - the letter A, - marked out in lines of dull red light." It's Henry James who thought this went too far.

I wonder if an older Henry James still agreed. Isn't this just another turn of the screw, Hawthorne pushing his symbolic structure to its imaginative limits. Hawthorne does this again and again in The Scarlet Letter, for example in that incredible description of Pearl in the woods, which culminates with "A wolf, it is said--but here the tale has surely lapsed into the improbable--came up and smelt of Pearl's robe, and offered his savage head to be patted by her hand." (Ch. XVIII) Even the narrator thinks the wolf goes too far. But the author knows better, and leaves it in. That the narrator and author are the same person is merely a detail.

One can turn a screw to the point where the wood splits and is ruined. Still, one mark of greatness - I have seen this again and again - is an author taking that one extra step that a lesser writer fears. Too implausible, too corny. Too audacious.

* The Scarlet Letter is structured exactly - exactly - on Syd Field screenwriting principles. "The Minister's Vigil" is Plot Point 2, the meeting in the forest in Plot Point 3, and so on.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Why am I supposed to hate The Scarlet Letter?

I just finished The Scarlet Letter a couple of days ago. I'd never read it before. It turns out to be - what's the technical literary term? - awesome. Chapter XII, "The Minister's Vigil" - holy cow, what a piece of writing. Virtually nothing in Hawthorne's short fiction, almost entirely written before The Scarlet Letter, prepared me for the artistic quality of the best parts of this novel.

The impression I have picked up, here and there, is that this novel is much hated. Is this some lingering reaction to high school forced-feeding? I'm very glad, so so glad, that I was not assigned this book in high school. My understanding of fiction was a little narrow then. A little - to go back to my discussion of Gautier - utilitarian.

I was leafing through a book of snippets of essays on Hawthorne and came across a passage by Mark van Doren that I should have written down, since now I have to paraphrase it. Van Doren granted that The Scarlet Letter had some psychological acuteness and some symbolic resonance, but claimed that it is most valuable for Hawthorne's insightful understanding of Puritanism. Now, this strikes me as completely absurd, almost a crime against the notion of literature. The high school Amateur Reader might have agreed with van Doren, I'm afraid. I would have assumed that we were reading The Scarlet Letter because it complemented our 11th grade American history curriculum. It would help us learn about Puritans.

I might not have thought of it quite that way, but I did see fiction as a sort of sugar-coating to make the pill of useful historical information less bitter. Since I like useless - sorry, useful - historical information pills anyway, the Flintstones shape was not really necessary for me, but I would not have complained. I thought Moby-Dick worked very well as a way to learn about the whaling industry and 19th century sea-faring. And I was right about that, but, a little narrow, huh?

I also knew that there was such a thing as escapist literature, fantasy literature, The Hobbit and The Phantom Tollbooth and whatnot, very enjoyable. What a revelation, some years later, to understand that every novel is a fantasy novel. Different novels intersect with the actual world in different ways, and those intersections are often of great interest. But they're all imaginative creations. Even the parts that aren't made up are made up. And this is all aside from the fact that The Scarlet Letter features a witch, a vampire, and an elf-child.

Henry James, from his little book Hawthorne (1879):

"The faults of the book are, to my sense, a want of reality and an abuse of the fanciful element--of a certain superficial symbolism. The people strike me not as characters, but as representatives, very picturesquely arranged, of a single state of mind; and the interest of the story lies, not in them, but in the situation, which is insistently kept before us, with little progression, though with a great deal, as I have said, of a certain stable variation; and to which they, out of their reality, contribute little that helps it to live and move." (Ch. 5)

I would say that the second sentence is exactly right, while the first is more a matter of artistic judgment. For me, the novel has no more reality than it requires, and superficial symbolism is one of Hawthorne's primary subjects, what the book is actually about.

This is a short week for me, due to some coincidentally Hawthorne-related travel, so I won't spend more than another day on The Scarlet Letter. In the meantime, please, fill me in. What am I missing?

Monday, June 1, 2009

The soft, quiet night was spreading its peaceful influence everywhere - the surprisingly sweet The Jewish Gauchos of the Pampas

The Jewish Gauchos of the Pampas (1910) is not well described by its title. Almost none of the gauchos in Alberto Gerchunoff's collection of stories are Jews; almost none of the Jews are gauchos. I mean, there are a few Jewish gauchos. I guess most books don't have any, so I shouldn't complain.

Gerchunoff's family had moved from a Russian shtetl to Argentina when he was twelve or so. His book consists of sketches, written for a newspaper, describing life in the new Jewish immigrant community. It all makes for an interesting book, although I should say up front that this is not a lost classic.

The clash between the Jewish settlers and the incomprehensible honor culture of the gauchos provides the conflict for several of the best, or, at least, most dramatic stories. In "The Death of Reb Saul," a Jewish farmer is murdered by his Argentinean farmhand (who knows full well that the crime makes him an outlaw) because of a slight over how to properly yoke an ox. Neither the other Jews, nor the reader, have any hope of understanding what happened. The gaucho would not be able to articulate it, either: "Don Goyo walked out of the corral as if nothing had happened and moved quietly towards the other houses. He was soon out of sight."

Although the violent stories are more exciting, some of the quieter stories are just as good. In "The Social Call," Rabbi Abraham and his family visit a local rancher. The Rabbis Spanish is weak, and the Argentinians for some reason have no Yiddish, but somehow they make do, discussing the productivity of their milk cows and hens, and watching the night sky:

"The conversation died slowly, as if the soft, quiet night was spreading its peaceful influence everywhere. The trees were in full bloom and spread their perfume over all. The daisies that were thickly spread over the orchard looked clean and white in the light of the bright moon.

'In all the world, there isn't a sky like this one,' Don Abraham said.

He explained that he had been in Palestine, in Egypt and in Russia, but nowhere had he seen a sky as intensely blue as that of Entre Rios."

Gerchunoff's book is really about assimilation, young people adopting gaucho clothes and learning Spanish, old people becoming farmers and struggling to maintain their traditions, everybody adapting in one way or another. Most of the sketches are quite gentle and charming. I thought this was an artistic problem - despite the few exceptions like "The Death of Reb Saul," I think Gerchunoff has smoothed over some of the deeper sources of conflict, and he does not provide a sufficiently rich symbolic or linguistic setting to mitigate the lack of drama.

This smiling approach to assimilation is a rare thing in fiction, and might itself be more of an achievement than I realize. Still, this seemed like a book of much higher historical than literary interest.

A note: Gerchunoff's book is only tangentially part of my feast of Yiddish literature. It was written in Spanish, not Yiddish (which makes the book itself part of its argument). Prudencio de Pereda translated it into English for the University of New Mexico Press, 1998.